Friday, June 1, 2012

The Best Food in Fairhope

In That Was Tomorrow, my novel set in Fairhope, Alabama, in 1921, Idella Cross, who ran one of the inns, was one of the town's best cooks. The young teacher Amelia, is treated to a groaning board at every meal. Idella is a fictional character, but her food inspired this writing:

Mrs. Cross was pouring tea and the colored girl was clearing the table. She had brought in a deep-dish peach cobbler, which Amelia could sense was still warm because of the fragrance it spread throughout the room. Amelia wasn’t accustomed to the big meals Mrs. Cross served, and she watched her dispense the large wedges of cobbler with some apprehension.
            “I think I’ll just have coffee, Mrs. Cross,” she said.
            “Oh? You’ll love the cobbler— but then maybe you’d like it for breakfast.”
            “That would be wonderful, I’m sure.”
            Mr. Taylor accepted both pie and coffee, yet there was still enough left over to think about having a small slice with coffee in the morning.

If you'd like to create an irresistible peach cobbler in the old-fashioned way that Mrs. Cross did, this is a recipe you might try.

You'll have to make a pastry crust. Really. You. Not a packaged crust or a tube of pre-made biscuits. Pie crust is the easiest thing you'll ever do, and you can even use a food processor for it even though Idella didn't have one. Here is the basic technique: 

1 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour (If you're in the South, use Martha White or White Lily. One substitute is to use half cake flour and half all-purpose. No one will complain if you use basic all-purpose flour, but the most melting, tender crusts are made with special flour.

4 Tablespoons Shortening (Mrs. Cross would have used lard, but you may use butter or even Crisco.)

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 Tablespoons ice water 

Whisk or sift the flour with salt. Chop in shortening with a pastry blender, a fork, or pulse in the food processor until the mixture looks like small peas. Sprinkle with ice water and blend again until mixture easily forms a ball. You may have to use more water, but don't drown the dough. You want a nice firm disc. Chill this for at least an hour.

Peel and slice about ten peaches (three cups sliced). Put 1 Cup of sugar into a saucepan with 1/4 Cup of water, bring to a boil, lower the hear and simmer for a few minutes before adding the peaches. Cook the peaches in the syrup for about ten minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, if desired.

Roll the dough and line a deep pie pan or a casserole with it. Add half the peaches and layer strips of dough over it. Add the rest of the peaches and top with a lattice of crust. Dot the top with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until bubbly and golden on top. 

Your family and guests will never forget it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Nourishing My Brain

From time to time on this blog, in between the many posts of recipes for calorie-laden treats, I write of the latest diet I'm on. The older I get the less effective any of them is, but I continue to think I can restore my youth if I can just change the way I eat for a couple of months.

The latest one I fell for was Dr. Amen's diet for brain health. I saw it on PBS, in fact I've seen him many times on PBS since there are three PBS options in this area, all of them using his lectures to raise funds. He seems so lithe, so reasonable, and everything he says makes sense, so he must indeed have a healthy brain himself. What he proposes is a version of the CRON diet, which I've read about and written about, but is so strict that I just don't seem to be able to do it. I certainly cannot claim that I've adhered to it strictly enough that I've lost any weight. I console myself with the notion that I just may be replacing fat cells with muscle, but I have no real evidence of that.

Last month I saw Dr. Amen talking about his sister-in-law who was on an extremely unhealthy diet and was feeling so listless and depressed that she went to her doctor. He prescribed that she change the way she ate--have NO sugar, NO bread, NO pasta, NO alcohol, and NO coffee. She responded, "Well, those are the only things I do eat!" but she followed instructions. Of course, within a month she had lost something like ten pounds and felt better than she ever had in her life. She has stayed with it and continues to lose weight and be happy. Dr. Amen stresses that this is not a weight-loss regimen, but a way to improve the function of the brain.

I decided that for the month of May I'd try it. And if it worked even a little, if I felt my brain was working better, and/or I was losing a little flab here and there, I'd continue for at least another month.

It hasn't been easy. I am not able to be very strict with myself, but I limit coffee to two cups a week at this point, spacing them from Wednesday to Saturday. Bread was probably the hardest thing to forgo, particularly living in a town full of Italian bakeries. I decided an occasional half of a whole wheat pita would be okay. I haven't been able to go completely sugar-free either, but I cut out the health-food-store cookies which I was eating daily. For other things I switched to agave nectar, which is as high in calories as sugar, but slower to metabolize.

I've been white-knuckling it to some degree. I keep seeing the end of the month in sight. I don't see any difference on the scale, but I'm sticking with this as best I can. And I feel a little smarter, more alert, more focused and very proud of myself. I'll let you know if I make it through June as well.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Crusty Me, And a Pecan Pie Recipe

March 11, 2010

I have made pies from scratch ever since I started cooking at the age of 17. I need not tell you that was many years ago.

When I started baking pies, the only shortening I knew of was margarine. It was the South; my mother was not much of a cook, and the table spread in our home was the artificial yellow stuff that nobody much (including me) would think of touching nowadays.

I found a recipe for pecan pie and one for pie crust, and used to make it to show off every chance I got. I collected pecan pie recipes and selected the best of them and it became my basic go-to pie for the rest of my life.

As I conferred with other cooks I learned that the shortening of choice for pie crusts was usually Crisco, which delivered a consistently flaky and melt-in-the-mouth crust. I switched to that with good results. Then I moved to Geneva for six years, and discovered the French custom of all-butter pie crusts, which was not as satisfying to me, but became an option. The French add an egg to the recipe, and a little sugar, which I did not find to improve the product. I even heard that the best American cooks used lard in the crust, but could not bring myself to do that. I never put any sugar in a pie crust--to me the slightly salty tang is the perfect complement to a sweet filling.

In the 1980's we discovered that all the pie crust shortenings were absolutely life-threateningly high in trans-fat and should be shunned. This created the dilemma: No-crust pies, or just cut it down to one pie or so a year? I can tolerate a no-crust quiche or savory pie, but knew that pecan pie and fruit pies were greatly enhanced by a crust. And I love pie crust!

I decided to accept the fact that the crust, delicious as it may be, was not something one should eat much of, and pies were something to save for very infrequent ingestion. I then experimented again with combinations of shortenings to achieve the irresistible pie crust experience. I hit on this recipe, which I guarantee will deliver an absolutely perfect pie crust for a 10-inch pie (if you only make a pie every other year or so, why not go ahead and make a big one?):

1 1/2 Cups Flour
5 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
5 Tablespoons Lard
3/4 teaspoon Salt
4 Tablespoons Ice Water

Sift the flour and measure. Combine with the salt and cut in the chilled shortenings by hand with a pastry cutter until well and evenly blended. This takes some patience and elbow grease, but you can tell when it is well mixed, and you are unlikely to overwork the mixture. Sprinkle the water on and mix until the dough holds together when gathered by hand into a ball. You should not need more water than this, but if absolutely necessary you may add another teaspoon or so. Form into a disc using the least handwork possible, wrap in plastic film and chill several hours or overnight.
It should be rather easy to roll out.

Now that I've taken you this far, I'll give you the ultimate traditional Southern recipe for pecan pie filling.

1 1/2 Cups clear Karo Syrup
1 1/2 Cups pecan halves
1 Cup light brown sugar
1/2 stick butter
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
Dash of salt

Mix the Karo Syrup with the sugar in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is dissolved. It may boil--but stir, and remove from the heat when the sugar has melted. Add the butter to this while you beat the eggs. When the sugar mixture is cool enough, add a little at a time to the egg mixture, add pecans, vanilla and salt. Pour this into an unbaked 10" pie shell.

It will bake at 325 degrees for about an hour. Keep an eye on the pie during the last 15 minutes of baking.

It's probably best not to tell your guests what shortening you used. They will love the pie until they hear--I had a friend stop eating when I told her about the lard, saying that it tasted like pork as soon as she heard that.

Being from the South, tasting pork is never an excuse for me to stop eating.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Old-School Pot Roast

I got a Facebook message asking for my recipe for Crock Pot Pot Roast, which is rather odd because I don't own a crock pot and never have. I do make a killer pot roast, however, and I'm sure it could be adapted to the slow cooker.

Here's my message to the Facebook friend:

I don't see that cookbook anywhere--methinks it didn't make the trip with me. But here's what I did, and I don't have a crock pot:

Chop about two medium onions, a few carrots, a clove or two of garlic--and hold onto the potatoes (as many as you would like) for later. Season the roast (chuck), pat with flour, and brown on all sides in a hot dutch oven or cast iron fryingpan with about a tablespoon of oil in it. This is the pan I cooked the pot roast in. When roast is brown remove from the pan and soften the onions and carrots in it, adding the garlic for about one min at the end. Put the roast on top of this. (If using a crock pot, put onions and carrots in at this point and put the roast on top, leaving some of the onion mixture to put around and on top of the roast. Add a bay leaf and any other herb you like.)

Here is the trick: Now add one cup of tomato juice. You may add just a little more, but don't forget the meat will render a lot of its own liquid and you don't want too much. I cover the dutch oven with its lid and put in the oven at 275 or 300 for THREE HOURS. I would think the same thing would work with a crock pot.

The recipe can be made with red wine, which also tenderizes the meat and adds flavor--but it's different.

Easy to do and a wonderful winter treat.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cooking Basics: The Ultimate Custard

When I was a bride, back when the earth was still cooling, I took it upon myself to learn the basics of cooking. This was before Julia Child had her PBS series, so it was up to me to find books and magazines with instructions I could follow.

One of the first things I learned to make was superb egg custard, which can easily be the filling for an old-fashioned custard pie or the basis for a crême caramel. I have made many of both over my lifetime of cooking.

For a beginning cook the techniques used in making custard will get you through many more complicated dishes. Custard couldn't be easier or more satisfying, so let me walk you through the steps.

You'll bake the mixture in a water bath (called a bain marie in French and in serious cooking circles, but let's stick to American English here). What it is is a pan of hot water into which your baking dish is placed to keep the delicate eggy mixture from getting too much heat at once, causing it to curdle.

The basic recipe is 1 1/2 Cups whole milk, 1/2 C half and half. Scald the milk--that is, heat it until tiny bubbles form around the edge--but do not allow to boil. This may sound rich, but you will truly have an elegant custard if you use whole milk. You can skip the half-and-half if you have cholesterol issues, and just use two cups of milk, but the outcome will be better if you do use a little cream. If you use two cups of half-and-half you just may die of the ecstasy.

In the meantime combine 1 whole egg and two egg yolks--save the whites for adding to omelets--with 1/3 C sugar. Add about 1/2 tsp vanilla and a dash of salt. Cool the milk slightly and add a splash to the egg mixture to combine. Then slowly mix in the rest.

This goes into custard cups or into a small casserole like those ubiquitous Corningware things with a stylized blue flower on it that all of us 1950's housewives have lurking in our pantries. Put in the water-bath and bake at 325 for about 45 mins, testing by inserting a knife into the center. If the knife comes out clean, the custard is done.

Of course the most delicious thing to make with this recipe is creme caramel, which is also easy but requires one more step. The custard is the same, but caramel is made by slowly browning about one cup of sugar and pouring it into the chosen vessel(s) for the custard while still hot. If using individual custard cups, just pour about a tablespoon in the bottom and swirl it to cover the bottom. If you're using a big pan pour the caramel into the bottom of the pan. The custard will dissolve it somewhat and when you invert the pan(s) it forms a sauce coating the little custard. You really can't invert them until the custards are chilled a while. To get them out, gently run a knife around the edge of the cup first to loosen. You probably won't need to do this with caramel custards; you have a built-in sauce.

You have to pay close attention when you're browning sugar. It's exciting to make, but if you overcook it it burns and is useless. Just watch it go from tan to brown and then remove immediately from the heat.

You'll look like an expert cook, and you will have mastered some of the important techniques any cook should know. I can promise you'll be proud of the result. Please comment here if you have any problems--or especially if you have success!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cooking in Hoboken

October 1, 2009

If you check out this blog for specific posts you'll notice that I've blogged very little since moving to Hoboken almost two years ago. I love cooking, eating, and writing about food, but in Hoboken until two weeks ago, I didn't really have a place that inspired me to cook. That has changed.This is just a little corner of my new kitchen, and it seems I can think of nothing but cooking. There is a whiff of fall in the air and I'd love nothing more than to bake an apple pie.

You'll see I took a cue from the Home and Garden cable network by putting my cookbooks on top of my cabinets. This is going to require getting a nice little step stool to reach them, but I'm game for that. Until I get the step stool home, I have a ladder. And as a matter of fact, I can cook pretty well without the cookbooks.

It crossed my mind that I have no buddies in Hoboken who are avid cooks. They are all good cooks, but they don't get excited sharing recipes and techniques. I know such foodies are out there in Hoboken--because it's a food town if there ever was one--but there are such great restaurants that the enthusiastic home cooks are under the radar. Maybe this blog post will bring out a few and we can talk FOOD. I hope so.

I had lunch at Biggie's Clam House yesterday with a couple of Hoboken b 'n' r's, (that means, "born and raised in Hoboken" to you who are not in the know). We saw a nice older man--meaning older than us, which is indeed pretty old--eating something like greens out of a bowl. Carolyn's husband Rich said, "That man over there is eating something you'd love," to his wife. When Brother, the son of Biggie, and now the heir apparent to the title of "Biggie," came by our table, we asked what the man was eating. "Brocolli rabe," he said. "We make it with sausage."

I sighed that I had done the predictable thing and ordered fried clams. (I must say the others at the table had done the more Hoboken thing and ordered "Italian hot dogs," which are sausage sandwiches with onions and peppers and a sausage-and-pepper sandwich, which is just a little different.

Today I had a phone call from Connie, who was one who had ordered a hot dog yesterday. I told her I was going to try the brocolli rabe the next time. I have never been a fan of brocolli rabe--I find it bitter--and Connie said, "I always add fresh lemon juice. If you don't do that it will be bitter."

This triggered a long conversation about how Italians cook vegetables, the dependency on fresh lemon juice for vegetables (I have to have lemon juice on my spinach), and other food notes. She said she adds olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice to everything from cauliflower to escarole. I realized I had been missing this offhand swapping of recipes and kitchen ideas.

I'm looking to meet others who love to talk about food and cooking. If you live in Hoboken and have ideas on the subject, get in touch with me. I'll cook up a little something for us someday soon.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Red, White and Blue Food

July 2, 2009

July 4th requires that we come up with something patriotic to eat. Obvious choices are watermelon and fresh corn on the cob, but last year I added a salad that just about made me burst into a few choruses of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It's easy to make and very festive for any day of the year, but most appropriate for Independence Day.

Take your usual salad greens and my usual vinaigrette--about two parts olive oil to one part of white wine vinegar, stirred into a slap of Dijon mustard with just a dash of honey and salt to taste. (Actually, as I've directed here before, I put the mustard in the bowl first, cover it with Kosher salt, and then whip in the honey followed by the vinegar.) Some fresh lemon, lime, or orange juice can be added at this point, if desired. A slow drizzle of olive oil, whisking all the time, makes the dressing just as you like it.

Add the following ingredients to the greens: Blueberries, strawberries, and maybe a few Craisins. Toss with the vinaigrette and add a dash of Kosher salt over all.

The obvious place to go with red, white and blue food is to dessert. I like to mix a little low-calorie sweetener to yogurt (the one place it cannot be detected) and add a drop of vanilla and a drop of orange extract. This makes a delicious base for your blueberries and strawberries. Of course you can use raspberries and some dried cranberries as well. If you absolutely want something besides yogurt for the holiday, go ahead and use a premium vanilla ice cream (or make some yourself).

Have a safe and glorious 4th!